Fuel from algae

 By Nicholas Newman

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have discovered a way to turn a small mixture of algae and water into a kind of crude oil in less than an hour. What this technology is about?

In nature it takes millions of years to turn algae into what we know as crude oil. Since the late 1970s, however, scientists working for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have been grappling with the ambition to turn algae into crude oil at a competitive price. Their research has revealed a process which, by using high pressures and high temperatures, mimics the conditions that originally turned pre-historic plant material into fossil fuel deep within the earth.

So far these processes have turned out to be very costly and time consuming but in recent years scientists have continued to develop faster techniques and at lower cost. In 2013, researchers at the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) discovered a way to turn a small mixture of algae and water into a kind of crude oil in less than an hour. This “game changer” process, that replicates mother nature’s transformation of algae into crude oil and the biofuel it produces, will, they claim, be cost competitive with petrol in the not too-distant future.

The PNNL team has developed a continuous process that begins with the wet algae and water and subjects the entire mixture to high temperatures and pressures inside a giant pressure cooker, in this case, at 350ºC (662ºF) and 3,000 psi. In tests the process achieved between 50 and 70 percent conversion of the algae’s carbon content into fuel which can be further refined into aviation, fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel. A host of byproducts of the process are re-used in the next cycle, thus making it a largely self-sustaining process. For example, the resultant clean water has proved ideal for growing more algae while the waste gas is used to generate electricity and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be re-cycled to stimulate the growth of more algae.

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There are several consortiums worldwide investigating how to turn this laboratory process into a fully scalable commercial and competitive process. In 2012, a commercial pilot plant was built using Austrian-made SEE Algae Technology (SAT) technology for Grupo JB, a leading Brazilian ethanol producer. Since it came online in 2013, this $9.81 million plant, has been converting algae into biodiesel, biochemicals and feedstock for animals. The plant’s operators claim that it has a capacity to produce 1.2 million liters (317,000 gallons) of biodiesel per year, at a cost of $ 0.40-$0.50 per liter (around one quarter of a gallon).

Ongoing research in the U.S. is searching for ways to make this process commercially viable. In July 2015, the DOE awarded a consortium of organizations, which included Genifuel Corporation, the Colorado School of Mines, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Reliance Industries amongst others, a $9 million grant to conduct further research into producing valuable bio-products and bio-fuels from algae.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.